I’m thankful for Pastor Joyce’s invitation not just to be with you in worship today, but also, more specifically, to talk to you about what led me to become a vegan and to commit to a focus on animals in my studies. I first became a vegetarian in college, years before I became a pastor, but in all of my years of ministry, I’ve never actually focused on why I’ve chosen the path of veganism in a sermon, and so Pastor Joyce’s invitation was a welcome request to think about sharing a passion in this particular way. Because indeed, for me, veganism is a spiritual commitment, and a part of expression of faith.
Before I dive into this topic, though, I want to try to set you at ease. Food - what we choose to eat and why - that’s a really intimate topic. Even though we all eat, every day, for a variety of reasons, what we choose to eat is a topic that has been burdened with a lot of expectation and pressure from society and culture, from our well-meaning friends and family, and from ourselves. We wrap together what we eat with what we’re worth. We judge the food choices of others and we certainly judge ourselves. We struggle with disordered eating. And we blanket food with shame. I want to be clear that although I’m sharing about my journey, and how my relationship with food and animals is part of my faith commitments, I do not seek to shame or judge anyone who makes different choices than me. Food is a necessary part of life. But food, nourishment, is also a gift from God, and a source of joy, a blessing of community. My hope is that we all might experience food as just those things.
I first became interested in animal ethics when I was in high school. My older brother Jim had recently become a vegetarian. I was curious about his decision, and he told me he knew he wasn’t willing to kill his own food, and if he wasn’t willing to do the work of bringing meat to his plate, he didn’t want to eat it. He felt like we, particularly in the US, were disconnected from where our food comes from. I kept thinking about that, and watched him shift what he was eating, and then when I was a freshman in college, I followed in his footsteps and made the switch. My initial motivations, then, weren’t particularly spiritual in nature, but I quickly started to think about my decision in terms of my faith, because that’s what I tried to do with all of my life decisions: consider what God was calling me to do.
The Bible has lots of different messages about animals. In the creation accounts in Genesis, God directs people to eat plants, but not animals. After the flood though, God says people can eat animals too. There are many laws described in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, that give specific instructions for animal sacrifice as an offering to God, or for animals that are off limits to eat, considered unclean for one reason or another. Animals are included in Sabbath rest. In the text from Isaiah we shared today, the prophet imagines a future of peace, symbolized by loving relationships between animals and humans and predators and prey. When the prophet Jonah is sent to Nineveh to warn them of God’s judgment, humans and animals alike engage in acts of repentance. In the gospels, Jesus multiplies fish and loaves for the crowds, and directs his followers on fishing practices. He talks about the value of birds and flowers to God. Paul writes about the whole creation waiting with eager longing for redemption. Peter has a vision where God tells him he can eat animals that Peter thought unclean, for the sake of building relationships with new Gentile followers of Jesus. There’s no single message about animals in the Bible. But, they’re obviously important, since they’re mentioned so frequently. And God created them and called them good. So what can the role of animals in the BIble tell us? What can we conclude about our relationship with animals?
Several years ago, I was presenting a sermon series on women in the Bible and I was preaching about Deborah and Jael in the book of Judges. Jael, if you aren’t familiar, is the woman who helps Deborah and the Israelites to victory by driving a tent peg through the skull of the sleeping military commander who was taking refuge in her tent. A very pleasant story. And I was struggling to figure out what to say about this memorable passage: what “lesson” did I want people to take away. And one of my colleagues reminded me that my task is to make sure I’m sharing the “good news” in the text, wherever it is to be found. That simple reminder helped me a lot that Sunday, and has helped me a lot in my preaching life since then. When we read a text, where’s the good news - the gospel - the message of Jesus? Where’s the message of God’s unconditional love? Where’s the transformational power of God’s reign on earth, right here and now? Where’s the good news?
When I come to the scriptures thinking about animals, I have, at heart, the same question. Where’s the good news for animals? Is there good news for animals? If animals aren’t included in good news, why are they left out? And if they are, what does that look like? The founder of the Methodist movement, John Wesley, actually had something to say about my questions. Surprising to even to this staunch United Methodist, I learned just in the last couple of years that John Wesley spent significant time exploring the place of animals in the New Creation, the reign of God, in a sermon dedicated to the topic titled, “The General Deliverance.” Wesley insists that creatures have a place in heaven, where they, like human creatures, experience renewal and restoration. He writes,
The whole brute creation will then, undoubtedly, be restored, not only to the vigour, strength, and swiftness which they had at their creation, but to a far higher degree of each than they ever enjoyed. They will be restored, not only to that measure of understanding which they had in paradise, but to a degree of it as much higher than that ... The liberty they then had will be completely restored, and they will be free in all their motions … No rage will be found in any creature, no fierceness, no cruelty, or thirst for blood. (1)
So, Wesley argues that: all animals are restored completely to their full selves in the new earth - not even just to the form and life they had in paradise, but something even better than that. They’ll be freed from both being recipients and perpetrators of cruelty. The suffering animals experience on earth will cease to exist in the new earth and heavens, and animals will experience “happiness suited to their state” “without end.” Further, he says that animals receive recompense for all they once suffered, and they’ll enjoy perpetual happiness.Thus, Wesley says, since God includes animals in God’s plan of redemption, we too ought to show mercy to animals. We should “soften our hearts towards the meaner creatures, knowing that the Lord careth for them.”
In light of Welsey’s understanding of the place of animals in eternity, part of God’s redeemed creation, for me, part of the way I embrace God’s reign and redemption now is by seeking a life for animals now that mirrors what Wesley hopes for their eternal future. Any way we can embody God’s eternal reign in the here and now is what I think the good news of the gospel is all about. If God plans on redeeming all creation, including animals, and if God shows mercy even to animals, we can try to enact now as much as possible (on earth as in heaven, we might say) the vision we believe God has for the future. For me, veganism - eliminating all animal products from my diet, is a way that I try to embrace God’s reign, so that all creation might thrive now.
In my school work and in my work with a Christian animal advocacy agency called CreatureKind, I’ve also been coming to understand more and more how concern for animals deeply ties in with my concern for people, particularly people on the margins. Rev. Dr. Chris Carter, a United Methodist pastor and professor in California, talks about how the systems of domination that try to show a sharp divide between humans and nonhuman animals are the same systems that also make a sharp divide between the ideal human: white heterosexual men in our culture - and humans who don’t “measure up”: women, people of color, and anyone else who isn’t the white male ideal. In fact, often, one of the ways people have belittled humans who “don’t measure up” is by comparing them to animals, animalizing them, trying to take away their humanity. I hope it is clear that this whole system - a system that creates an ideal human image that includes only certain races and genders and classes and types of people, and then makes everyone else less-than - is far outside of God’s vision for us, and for the earth. Instead, in love, God creates us in God’s own image, a part of the whole creation, all of which God calls good, and all of which God longs to see flourish and thrive. And so, for me, when I commit to compassion for animals, I’m also recommitting to pursue justice and right relationship with my human neighbors too. The deeper I dig, the more I see my commitment to animals as part of my practice of faith.
I return to our text from Isaiah 11:
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
7 The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
9 They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain; (NRSV)
This beautiful vision is a text we normally hear at Advent. Perhaps we can only embrace such a vision of the future like Isaiah’s near Christmas, when our hearts are full and we’re anticipating welcoming the Christ Child. But I wonder: what is your vision of how things will be in eternity? And, if we pray that God’s will was done on earth as in heaven, what can you start doing now to bring God’s reign ever closer to earth? However each of us answers those questions, let’s do our best to be about the work of making our dreams with God a reality in the here and now. Amen.
Wesley, John. “The General Deliverance.” Sermons on Several Occasions Vol. V. New York: Ezekiel Cooper and John Wilson, 1806.
Excerpts drawn from a blog post of mine, https://www.facebook.com/unitedmethodistanimaladvocates/posts/176050987624111.